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Breast Cancer Health Center

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Acupuncture May Help Chemotherapy Side Effects

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Dec. 5, 2000 -- Nausea and vomiting -- never a lot of fun -- can be among the most distressing and disabling side effects of chemotherapy for breast cancer patients. Now, researchers at the NIH have shown that a variation of the traditional Oriental medical practice of acupuncture, along with commonly used medications, may help.

"The results of our study suggest that among patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy, electroacupuncture was more effective in controlling vomiting than just medication alone," says Joannie Shen, MD, MPH, research associate at the NIH, whose study appears in the Dec. 6, 2000 edition of TheJournal of the American Medical Association. Electroacupuncture uses a mild electric current passed through traditional acupuncture needles placed lightly into specific points on the body.

However, it's not known from the study whether acupuncture would be as effective in women receiving standard dose-chemotherapy, she tells WebMD.

In the study, over 100 breast cancer patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy all received drugs commonly used to control nausea and vomiting. But one group of women also received electroacupuncture in addition to the drugs, and another group received drugs and minimal needling -- a kind of "sham" acupuncture intended to mimic the real thing. A third group received only the drugs and no acupuncture, according to the report.

Shen and her colleagues found that those women who had received electroacupuncture had fewer vomiting episodes than the women who only received drugs. Even the women who got the "minimal needling" did somewhat better than the women who only got drugs, she reports.

That suggests that some of the response to acupuncture could be explained by the "placebo effect" -- the concept that some patients will get better even without getting the real treatment, perhaps just from receiving more attention from caregivers. However, the acupuncture and the minimal needling was terminated at five days, and when Shen and colleagues went back to look at how the patients were faring on the ninth day, there were no longer significant differences between the three groups.

That's important, Shen says, because it supports the idea that acupuncture really had an effect on the body. "We were skeptical at the beginning, thinking that maybe it was just the extra attention, so that's why we did the follow-up," Shen tells WebMD. "It's the strongest part of our study."

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